Title: The Strong Ones
Rating: PG (character death)
Disclaimer: I don't own anything. I wished I owned the two Xanders' from "The Replacement" though. Buffy and friends are owned by Joss, Mutant Enemy, 20th Century Fox, The UPN and whoever else has rights to the show.
Summary: Buffy and Xander are married and have two kids…but life changes.
Distribution: I don't know why anybody would want this, but if somebody does…sure.
Feedback: Definitely!! Tell me if it sucked or if you liked it. Whatever. Just write back!
Authors Note #1: This starts out as a narrative, the switches to third person, and then goes back to a narrative. Just telling you in case it got confusing.
Authors Note #2: Assume that everything, season 1 through 7, happened BUT Joyce and Tara dying and Buffy sleeping with Spike. Why? Cuz I says so, that's why.
Authors Note #3: I was having writers block with "Before the Fall of Rome" and this is what came out instead. It's not the fluff that was called for, but I've gotta be in a mood to turn that out. But I'm dedicating this to Reed (cuz I'm a bad IM buddy) and Shawn (cuz I liked his last story and I want his to write more right now).
I never wanted to receive that call.
Some part of me though, deep down, always expected it. But, I never really though that it would happen. I guess I got too used to not getting what I didn't want. It didn't always used to be that way. I used to expect the worst, forgetting to prepare for the best because it rarely came.
Buffy broke me of that. Got me into the pattern of expecting the best, receiving even better; and the worst…The worst didn't extend beyond a rainy day when we were planning to go to the beach.
Alright. So that's an exaggeration. Life throws you curve balls and sometimes they hit you dead in the face. Everybody is human. But Buffy made my worst that much brighter. Not so bad. Almost bearable.
She loved me. Married me. Had my children even. Two of them and planning on more. That being known, it would be impossible that we didn't fight. We fought with out all that stuff anyway. If we didn't I'd doubt that we were really in love, and we were…are…always will be.
But that's not the point. Well, it is the point because it was the underlying factor of every breath I drew. But it was more than that.
The call was more than that.
Simply put, it was the one thing that Buffy couldn't save me from even though I wish to God that she could.
I begged her. I'd been begging her for five years, ever since her first pregnancy with out son Gray. She listened then, too. Didn't go on one patrol or hunt one demon for nine months, and Sunnydale survived without a Slayer. Me, Wills, Giles, Tara, and even Spike took care of it all. But once Gray was here, Buffy was right back out. I hated that. I got physically ill waiting for her to come home some nights.
That was part of the reason I was even more ecstatic when she told me that she was pregnant again. Blythe. She stopped slaying again then, too, and took even longer to get back into it this time. I thought that we were finally on the same page that demons had no part in our family…but by the eleventh month of her "break" she was slaying again.
Buffy always said that it was something about instinct and the need to protect the world.
So, I begged her again tonight, once again, for her not to go. Not to leave me. I don't want to raise our children alone.
And I waited.
I put Gray to bed and checked on Blythe and I waited.
Until the phone rang.
My stomach didn't even immediately drop, even though it was 11:45 at night. The greeting: "Hello, this is Sunnydale Memorial Hospital", in that painfully grave but oddly upbeat tone, though, made my heart stop. Literally, it stopped beating.
"Yes," Xander said quietly into the receiver.
"Hello. Are you Alexander Harris?" the male voice questioned on the other end of the line.
"Yes." Xander repeated.
"Alright, um," A pause indicated that the man was looking for something before speaking, "A Buffy Harris was brought in about a half an hour ago. Your name was on her medical emergency card."
Xander took a long blink, "Is she alright?" His body had shut down and he had dulled into a blissfully numb panic.
"Can you come down here?" the voice asked instead of an answer.
She wasn't alright. Could he come down there? Let's see, he thought, Now's not really a good time. I've got work… "I'm on my way right now." Xander hung up the phone quickly.
His body was shaking as he ascended the stairs and he focused on his breathing to keep form passing out. He went to his daughter's room first, packing her diaper bag before retrieving her from the crib. The little girl awoke immediately from the movement.
"Shhhh," Xander offered a labored grin while looking into Blythe's greenish-hazel eyes, just like her Mom's. "We're going to get your brother and go for a ride," he whispered. Holding her steadied him as he walked down the hall to Gray's room. He didn't turn on the light as he padded to the bed and softly shook the four year old's shoulder. "Gray," he whispered, "Wake up sweetheart."
The boy slowly rolled over onto his back to face him. "Daddy?" he yawned, his hands rubbing his eyes in the dark.
"We have to go for a ride now," Xander said softly, shifting a now dozing Blythe in his arms.
"Where's Mommy?" Gray asked sitting up.
Xander reached over with his free hand and flicked on the light on the night table. "We have to go get her," he told him uncertainly.
He and Buffy had made it a point not to hide the Slayer aspect of her life from their son, if for nothing more than to make sure that he was safe. Gray knew that it was as secret and had grasped the rudimentary idea of what the sacred duty entailed. But he wasn't supposed to have t deal with it first hand…
"Is Mommy hurt?" the child asked next, getting out of bed and moving to put on his shoes. He looked like Buffy too; same eyes, nose, mouth. Their foreheads even scrunched up the same way so you could always tell if they were confused. Xander was thankful that Buffy's genetics, as was true with most things about her, over powered his own. He loved the utter perfection that was the green-hazel eyed child with scruffy hair that turned more dark brown from blond every year. He loved the flawlessness of the little girl with the softest sandy blond hair and perfect pout that would, no doubt, be her mother's double by the time she hit puberty; a fact Xander was thankful was not on the horizon in the near future.
"I don't know," Xander answered, doubting his own words, "but we need to hurry to go check."
Gray nodded as Xander stood up with his daughter in his arms and ushered him out of the door, down the stairs and to the new Navigator that they had just brought. Gray climbed in the back seat while Xander fastened Blythe into her car seat, careful to disturb her as little as possible.
Xander was running on auto-pilot as he climbed into the front seat and started to drive; probably a lot faster than Buffy would have like with her off spring in the car. She was always yelling at him about driving to fast. But, he'd be thankful to hear from her later.
He drove down the silent dark streets, the headlights reflecting off the dew of the neighboring lawns and laughed bitterly, as he saw not one undead monster roaming the area. Figures.
Xander's fingers punched blindly at the speed dial to the cell phone on the dashboard. He had to call Joyce. He had to call Willow. He had to call Giles…
"Hello?" Dawn's sleepy voice answered suspiciously after about the fifth ring.
"Dawn," Xander responded deadly.
"Hey, Xan," she yawned, but then became suddenly alert, "What's the matter?"
Xander remembered a time when he was supposed to keep this type of information from Buffy's little sister, but those days had since passed. "Buffy's in the hospital. They called and told me to come," his voice kept the same tone through out.
"Are Gray and Blythe…"
"They're with me," Xander responded, "Ummm, I don't know…"
"Mom and I'll be right there. Sunnydale Memorial, right?"
"Yeah," he answered with a shaky breath that Dawn must have heard.
"Don't worry, Xan," she tried to reassure, "We'll be there soon."
Xander nodded despite the fact that there was nobody there to see him and hit the end button on the phone, refocusing on the tediously long path to the hospital. Gray, who was usually full of questions, a feat famous for keeping his Grandpa Giles fonting his knowledge for hours, sat silent in the back seat, and Xander could feel him watching the side of his face. He was probably waiting for a reaction that would confirm the bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. A reaction that Xander was staving off for everything he was worth.
When Xander pulled into the hospital parking lot Gray was out of the car first; turning his small form to climb out of the raised vehicle. Xander decided to that he didn't need any help, and smiled to himself that he was as determined and stubborn as his mother when he wanted something.
Xander retrieved Blythe from her car seat and turned to find his son waiting for his, his tiny hand extended for him to take. Xander tried to muster a smile as he declined the offer and instead stooped down and scooped his son up with his other arm, starting a purposeful stride to the familiar automatic doors of the emergency room.
"Do you want to hold your sister?" he asked the little boy as he set him down in the waiting room seat closest to the receptionist desk, and received a nodded answer. "Remember," he said gently adjusting the sleeping baby in his small arms.
"Hold her head," the tiny voice completed.
Xander remembered coming home from work one day not too long after Blythe had been born to find Buffy sitting on the couch watching Gray cradle his little sister with the widest grin on his face. The little boy always got a glow in his eyes when he needed to protect her; a trait that Xander supposed he got from him.
"Alright," he smiled, "I'm going to go find out about Mommy. Don't move."
Gray smiled and made a short show of freezing in place momentarily earning a parting grin from his father before he walked to the desk. Xander covered the distance of the waiting room in no less than three steps, but his quiet tone betrayed his internal panic.
"I was called and told Buffy Harris was brought here," he started, apropos a real greeting, but hospital workers had to understand that.
Recognition dawned on the man's face as he seemed to remember the call he had made. "Oh yes," the young man had the charts set aside, "We just moved her to a room." His voice contradicted the usually joyous news of Buffy not needing to be in the ER anymore. "I'll page her doctor to come have a word with you."
"Alright," Xander nodded, not wanting the answers if the man obviously didn't want to give them. For now, at least, he was savoring his ignorance. He walked back over to his children and slumped down into one of the chairs beside his son, instinctively ruffling his hand through his longish hair. He peered at Gray with a tilted head while the boy watched his sister sleep. "Are you tired?" he asked quietly after a moment, to which Gray shook his head, but yawned giving himself away. Xander was about to speak again when he noticed a nurse and a doctor walking towards them. "Nana and Aunt Dawn'll be here soon," he whispered as the two new arrivals reached the chairs and Gray looked up.
The young woman who had accompanied the doctor took a seat on the other side of the children and smiled warmly.
"I'm going to go to with the doctor, but I'll be back soon," Xander explained, "You stay here with…" he prompted the woman.
"Lindsey," she filled in and Xander stood up.
"Tell her your name," he said when his son continued to sit in silence, ignoring the greeting.
"I'm Gray," he said somewhat shyly, not making eye contact. "This is my sister Blythe."
Xander tried to smile at the woman before addressing his child, "Be good."
"Daddy?" Gray called as Xander walked away and he turned around.
"Tell Mommy that we're out here and that I said hi," his small voice requested and almost broke Xander's heart.
"How bout I do you one better and we all go in and see her in a few minutes?"
Gray beamed and nodded beside the female hospital worker before refocusing on his sister. Xander shed a private smile at watching them and turned to follow the doctor.
"Dr. Jason Moore," the man introduced himself after they had turned the corner and he extended his hand to Xander. "Feel free to call me Jason," he added when Xander shook it.
"Alex Harris." Xander replied, eyeing the young doctor who looked to be a little younger than he and Buffy.
"Alright Alex," Jason started with a breath while flipping through his chart. "Buffy's your wife I take it." Xander nodded. "Well then, you know how…stubborn…she can be."
Xander grinned a little and nodded again. He could only imagine what Buffy had been putting the hospital staff through since he remembered both Gray and Blythe's births…and the rumors of that the nurses then circulated about the 'Crazy Bitch from Hell' that was their mother. More than a few of them wanted to have Xander castrated, he was sure. "Is she alright?"
"She's been asking to see you as soon as you got here." Jason said instead, "But…"
That one word made Xander's stomach drop to somewhere down by his knees and he swallowed deeply. "But what?"
"The muggings in this town are especially brutal," Dr. Moore explained, "this one was no exception. Buffy is one of the few who got here alive, to put it bluntly." A shiver of hope shot through Xander…and then it exploded and incinerated him from the inside out. "If she had been brought in a few hours sooner…we'd be more optimistic about her recovery. There is way too much internal damage, there's nothing we can do for her now that wouldn't expedite…without causing more damage."
Xander blinked, unable to stop the tremors racking his body, "So what?" he asked louder than he meant to, "So she's alive now, but that's going to change soon?! You're telling me that my wife is going to die here tonight?"
Jason reached out and grasped Xander's shoulder, "I'm so sorry. We've done everything…"
"Can we see her?" Xander said in a non-questioning form. "My children want to see their mother."
Jason hadn't been a doctor for long, but he had delivered this type of news to too many families in this town. It never got any easier. In fact, with every one it got exponentially more difficult. "Right away. Uh, she's in room 314. It's down that hall. The first one on the left."
Xander nodded, "Thank you," he said shortly and took a step back.
"She's awake," Jason stated, "She's understandably weak, but you and the family can go in. I'll be here to answer any questions that you may have."
Xander's lips tightened as he turned and went to retrieve his children. He walked numbly back to the waiting room, too empty to even muster the tears that were flooding him inside. Xander took a deep breath and set a fake smile for his children. He wouldn't tell his children that tonight would be the last time that they would see their mother. He stopped and steadied himself against the wall. It would be the last time he would see his wife…his best friend since he was a child…his Buffy. He took a few more deep breaths and re-entered the waiting room only to find that Joyce and Dawn had arrived and replaced the woman that he had left Gray and Blythe with.
He approached them, noticing that Joyce was holding her grand daughter and Dawn was resting with her nephew in her lap. "Daddy," the boy said, seeing Xander first and sliding off of Dawn's lap. The tow women followed his move and stood to approach Xander. He smiled falsely at them, belaying the pain that was ebbing on the surface and swooped down to pick the boy up.
"Alright Bucko," he balanced him on his hip, "They said that you can go see your Mom now," he tried to smile.
"Is everything alright?" Joyce asked as she handed Blythe over to her father's awaiting arm.
Xander hoped that his eyes would answer the question his mouth couldn't right now. "Yeah," he swallowed. "Her doctor is Jason Moore," he said. "I'm going to take them in and I'll be right back."
"Ma," Blythe babbled, gripping the hair on the back of his head and Xander turned to face her. "Yep, we're going to go see Mommy," he cooed as he turned and walked away. "I'll be right back. Wait for me," he requested of Joyce and Dawn, who were fast joining him in the spreading dread of the news.
Xander entered Buffy's room quietly, taking in her sleeping form, propped up on the pillows and tucked firmly in the thin white sheets. She looked perfectly healthy, despite being in a hospital, not even particularly beat up or a mass of cuts and bruises. However; as he approached her, thanks – or not – to his years of dedicated Buffy study, he was able to see a difference. She was so pale, her face devoid of makeup revealed the once luminous, but now pasty skin underneath. She was drawing in labored breaths through her parted dry lips as the blond hair framing her face almost washed her out.
"Sweetheart?" Xander called when Buffy hadn't moved when he reached her bedside, and her eyes opened slowly, focusing on her family.
"Hi, Mommy," Gray smiled down at her from his perch in Xander's arms, while Blythe chose to reach out to her with both arms.
"Xan," Buffy said in a low voice while Xander leant over so Blythe could reach her Mom. "Hi Sweethearts," she greeted her children weakly while the little girl latched onto her neck. Xander smiled and set Gray down on the bed and he crawled over to the other side to snuggle beside her, too.
"How are you Mommy?" he asked while the baby grabbed a fistful of Buffy's hair.
"Better now," she answered with a genuine smile before letting her eyes find Xander's. He could see the physical pain racking her body through the dulling green orbs and his heart clenched that there was nothing that he could do for her. "Hey," she whispered, gazing up at him.
Xander simply leant down and pressed a quick kiss to her lips, lingering for a moment with his eyes closed in hopes of never forgetting the feel of her mouth beneath his own. "Hey," he smiled after a minute when he pulled away.
"Gross." Gray mumbled and buried his face in Buffy's neck, earning chuckles from his parents.
"Will you be okay for a few minutes?" Xander asked, his hand gently running through his daughter's hair while he starred into Buffy's eyes.
"I don't know," she joked. "These two can get pretty rowdy."
Her smile died and she winced when Gray wrapped his arm around her stomach and squeezed.
"Gray!" Xander reprimanded sharply and Buffy's change in facial expression and the boy withdrew instantly, a worried look on his face.
"I'm ok," Buffy swallowed, her eyes pleading with Xander. "I'm alright Sweetheart," she said warmly to her son and pressed a kiss to his forehead. "You're just stronger than you were earlier tonight."
"It's Slayer strength," the child beamed, "I got it from you."
"You're Mom and sister are waiting outside. I'm going to go talk to them…give you guys some time alone." He silently inventoried his family. His perfect family. "I'll be back in a few minutes."
"We'll be waiting," Buffy offered with another labored grin, probably more for the benefit of her family than herself. Xander knew her well enough to know when she wanted to cry. He took another departing glance before walking out of the room, still able to hear his son talking excitedly to his wife and her soft replies.
Xander jammed his hands into his pockets and made his way back to Joyce and Dawn, whom he found had reclaimed their seats, but stood he returned.
"Xander," Joyce started softly, but he interrupted her by pulling her into a tight hug, reaching out and including Dawn after a few moments.
"Did you talk to the doctor?" he asked quietly when he released them. He could tell by the haunted look in their eyes that they had retrieved some information while he was gone.
"Yeah," Dawn answered, hugging herself and shifting from foot to foot with her eyes downcast.
"I'm going to give the kids a moment alone with her," his voice was just above a whisper, but Joyce couldn't hold back anymore. She released a loud choked sob and pulled Xander into another hug. One he willingly accepted.
"They said that her lungs were filling with fluid. She's just…just…" Joyce hiccupped. "They can't save her."
All Xander could do was nod, there was nothing to say. "What else did they tell you?"
"That she must have been mugged," Dawn filled in emotionlessly. "Said that since she didn't have a wallet that they probably just beat her up. That she was stabbed in the stomach and left for dead." She face him with hollow eyes, "The vamps beat her until her ribs punctured her lungs." She related the, more than likely correct, hypothesis. "And they can't save her," Buffy's little sister added in a small voice before breaking down and clinging to her mother.
Xander was glad that, for this brief moment, he was beyond feeling; that he had become a hollow shell for the time being. He did the only thing that e could do right then, the only safe course of action that would provide a distraction. "I'll get the kids so you can go in," he informed them. "Do you think…maybe you could take the kids with you for the night…so they don't have to stay…"
Joyce nodded understanding what it must be like to have to orcastrate all the good-byes for the love of his life. It must be as gut wrenching as preparing to let your oldest child go. Joyce supposed she should be thankful, as Xander walked away, and Dawn continued to shake in her embrace, the tears soaking through her shirt. Unlike so many families in Sunnydale she was getting a chance to say good bye to her child.
But then something else spoke up in her. A voice that said that this shouldn't be happening in the first place…that no farewells should be needed. In the perfect world that Joyce had tried her entire life to create for her daughters she had never had t let one of them go, but every so often the real world would erupt back in the most spectacular fashion, and never for the best.
Xander's feet shuffled down the abnormally shiny hall way as he headed back to Buffy's room. He could still hear Gray's excited speech mixed with the sounds of Dawn's sniffling; the reality of the situation surround him on all sides.
He reentered the small fluorescently lit room, his eyes falling to Buffy. He had never for all the times that he had seen her die, watched her die.
Blythe was cooing out various words that she had been learning, which only sounded like words to her parents, while keeping a firm grasp on her mother who kept her encouraging smile in place. A smile that only an adult who had experienced pain…death…would recognize as a woefully disguised grimace.
Gray was lying on Buffy's other side with his head resting under her chin while his small fingers toyed with the thin silver chain cross that was around her neck. "I told Mommy that you let me watch the Leno monologue," the boy beamed, "By accident."
Xander put on a smile that was very similar to Buffy's and stepped closer to his family. "That was our secret," he whispered mock-conspiriously.
"You should know that my boy doesn't keep secrets form his mother," Buffy hot him a weak glare and drew in a labored breath before relaxing back into the pillows, pulling her children closer.
Xander took a seat at the foot of the bed and rested his hand on her calf over the blanket causing Buffy to open her eyes again. "Alright guys," he addressed the children while not breaking eye contact with his wife. "The doctor said that Mommy needs her rest," he finished in a whisper as his throat dried out and his eyes got a sharp sting.
For the first time that night Gray's smile died, and Xander watched him pull himself closer to his Mom. "I don't wanna go yet."
"Aren't you tired baby?" Buffy questioned, not because she ever wanted to let him go, but more to take some of the strain off of Xander; but Gray shook his head.
"I'm not sleepy."
Xander took a deep breath and stood, noticing the degrees of fear that entered both mother and son's expressions. "You don't even want to go to Nana's house and play in Mommy's old room?" he spoke in a voice that he reserved for children, and Buffy raised her eye brows as if to suggest what he would be missing by staying with her.
The boy thought for a minute, but then addressed his Mom. "Are you tired?" he asked concerned, seeming to notice the increasingly bleak expression on her pale features.
Buffy choked on her words slightly and nodded, "A little."
Gray matched hers with a small nod and moved to wrap his arms around her neck, squeezing his eyes shut while he hugged her, and Buffy held on just as tightly, drawing in her lips from the pain her grip was causing her and nod caring.
"Can I come see you tomorrow?" he whispered into her hair.
Buffy didn't want to look into his eyes when she responded so she held his head tighter to her. "You can see me anytime you want."
Xander's voice was hoarse when he next spoke in a rough whisper, "Let's say g'night to Mommy, Gray."
He glanced towards his Dad and then gave Buffy a quick peck on the lips, his arms still loosely around her neck. "I love you sweetheart." Buffy told him, raising her hand to lightly brush his hair out of his face.
"Love you too, Mommy," he replied in a slightly embarrassed but sincere tone.
"I love you, too, Honey," she repeated to her daughter, holding her tighter and pressing a lingering kiss to her cheek while she giggled in her arms, trying to say her version of the words back.
Xander moved to the side of the bed and quietly picked up their daughter, her arms still outstretched to the woman in the bed as her smile faded.
"It's alright baby," Buffy reassured in a soothing voice, "Mommy's just going to sleep here tonight, that's all." She watched her husband shift the girl in his arms. "Yeah," Gray agreed for himself, as well as for his sister, his untainted innocence managing to shine through. "Mommy'll be home tomorrow, right?"
Buffy gave the bright eyed boy a weak grin, "Hopefully, baby."
Xander made his way to the other side of the bad and held out his arm to his son who let himself be scooped up.
"You be a good boy for your Nana, kay baby." Buffy bit back her tears and received a nod. "And for your Daddy."
"Promise." Gray swore holding up his right hand in an oath. A patented Xander move.
"And your sister."
Buffy shook her head slightly, "I love you guys. Always."
"Love you too, Mommy. Forever." He answered in kind to her statement. "G'night Mommy," the boy half yawned at her.
"C'mon Champs," Xander said to the children in his arms, "She needs to rest some now." He started backing out of the room, afraid that the last thing that Buffy would see of him was his turning his back on her. He walked back to where Joyce and Dawn were waiting, watching Buffy's mother's façade of a smile contort into a watery frown as he approached holding her grand children.
He knew what she must be thinking, or he thought that he did. She might be remembering how innocent Buffy had been as a child, so easily protected by just the presence of her arms. He watched Joyce look at the children, no longer trying to stave off tears, and knew what else the older woman saw, and probably would forever when she looked at either Gray or Blythe.
They both were unmistakingly Buffy, and all Xander could do was thank God that was the case. That way he'd be able to her everyday; at least her very embodiment in the form of the greatest gift that she had ever given him.
In the furthest darkest reaches of his mind, that was rapidly clawing it's way to the forefront, Xander was admitting to himself that, after tonight, he would never see Buffy herself again…be able to hold Buffy physically in his arms and receive the same ever again. In his admittance he also settled that he would never experience that type of love again. Ever. Letting her go would undoubtedly trample that last of his hearts faith in the nice guy finishing first, certainly more fish in the sea, and Happily Ever After.
Joyce pulled his small family into her arms, pressing tear streaked kisses to the children's' faces before smoothing her hand over the back of Xander's head, flattening the couch hair that he didn't care he had.
It was obvious Joyce couldn't really speak. Each passing second was whittling down on life as they knew it leaving it impossible to do anything nut breathe, and even that was becoming difficult. Time was moving too fast.
Joyce and Dawn walked to Buffy's room while Xander took the kids to the waiting room, simply sitting Gray in the chair next to him. He cradled Blythe in his arms as she started to drift back to sleep, her heavy eyelids opening every so often, as if she were refusing to give into the slumber.
Xander had called Willow and Giles; left them both messages. He had forgotten about the time difference, what with Willow having started graduate school in Oxford a year ago at Buffy's insistence, and Giles being away that week visiting family 'across the jolly ole puddle', Buffy had joked when they had dropped him at the airport last Wednesday.
Maybe if Giles had been there his wife wouldn't be dying. He was equally pissed at everyone. Willow had to get out of Sunnydale. Giles had to visit family. Joyce had to work late. Dawn had to go on a date. He had to watch the children. Buffy…God, Buffy always had to be independent and stubborn. Buffy couldn't take a night off, even though he told her that he had a bad feeling about her going. Buffy had to patrol alone.
It was his job to protect her, he had vowed to do that, but did she even give him a chance? She made him fail her, and now it would cost both of them…all of them…No. This was just about them. Him and Buffy and Gray and Blythe Harris. They were the ones who needed her. Didn't Buffy see that? Didn't she care…
"Daddy?" Gray's small voice entered his thoughts, refocusing him.
"Yeah, Champ?" he croaked. Xander cursed his voice for failing him when he needed to be his strongest. He turned his head to face his son and saw the pure worry on his face. It was then something wet fell onto his arm. A tear. He had been crying. Xander didn't even realize it until he was suddenly aware of the ticklely wet tracks on his cheeks running down to his chin and neck.
"Mommy's real sick, isn't she?" the boy asked, his high voice dropping to a whisper.
"Yeah," Xander responded simply, trying to force his mouth to smile, to grin for a positive spin – he just wanted to be able to form a simple word at that point, but it was all in vain.
"She's not going to come home with us tomorrow is she?" the next question.
Xander shook his head slightly, another tear falling and staining his t-shirt. "Prob'ly not, Honey." His voice wouldn't come back.
Gray nodded at his father and sat back against his seat, mimicking Xander's pose. "Mommy said that sometimes in this town, good people, who don't deserve to'll have to leave. That good people'll have to go away from their families forever."
Xander swallowed, "Mommy was fighting to keep that from happening so much. For the good people to not have to go away."
"The people who go away don't get to come back, and when they do its Mommy's job to send 'em packing."
Xander chuckled at his son and watched as he kicked his elevated feet in the air, but the boy stopped after a moment. "Mommy's going away, isn't she." It wasn't a really. It came out as a statement.
"Yeah, baby. Mommy…Mommy's…"
"Why do the good guys have to go, too?" Gray wondered out loud.
Xander bit his lower lip and questioned to himself how much his son really understood, despite his grasp of the concept of 'going away'. He was partly glad that it didn't seem to be a lot – that he still had a lot of innocence left. "I don't know," was all he could answer, but Gray was talking again.
"She told me that even though she might not be right next to me, if I just close my eyes and think, she'll always be there. In here," he finished pressing his small hand to his chest. "Will Mommy be in there for you, too?" he looked at Xander again.
Another simple answer. "Forever."
Gray sat back again, "So we'll both never forget then."
"C'mere," Xander opened his arm and pulled his son into a tight hug, pressing his face to the side of his head. "I love you, okay, "he whispered. "We're going to be okay."
"I know, Daddy," the boy said, his speech muffled by Xander's shoulder. "Mommy said so."
Buffy's eyes were closed when Joyce and Dawn reached the room. Her head tilted slightly to the right with her mouth slightly agape. She had oxygen being mechanically pushed through her nose held in place by the tubes hooked behind her ears, and Joyce saw that she was hardly using all that was being supplied.
She had never seen her daughter look smaller, so weak and vulnerable in her whole life, and there was nothing that she could do. The only thing that told Joyce that her daughter was still in there: the pale, dry, rattled body that seemed to be becoming a shell of her vibrant little girl, was the unnaturally slow heart rate as indicated by the monitor to the left of the bed.
Joyce turned her head to Dawn and grasped her slack hand, giving a gentle squeeze when she found her starring as well. Dawn took a deep breath that drew Buffy's hazy attention, the weariness clearly present in her eyes when she focused on them.
"Hey," she greeted quietly as she watched her mother and sister standing at the door. The sound of her voice combined with the sight of her caused Joyce to breakdown again, her greeting lost in a choked sob as she made her way to the bedside.
Her face was soaked with tears as she leaned over the bed and pulled her daughter into a hug, holding her as if she would vanish if she let go. She felt Buffy trying to hold on just as tightly as she pressed her face into her hair.
If she let go of Joyce she would vanish. As long as Buffy held on, she reasoned, she wouldn't go anywhere. But it hurt. It hurt everywhere and it took everything to sit up the fraction of an inch that the hug required. Buffy's grip loosened and she fell back slightly, breathing harder through her mouth and nose as Joyce brushed some of her hair out of her face.
Buffy turned her head slightly towards Dawn with a small short lived grin. "What? No hugs from you? Geez Dawnie, it's not like I've got funny hospital smell already. It's only been a few hours."
Dawn tried to laugh at her sister's joke but what came out was more a dry exhalation of breath. She stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Buffy's neck. "Nope," she quipped into her ear, "You've still just got funny Buffy smell." She still held on not wanting to reveal the tears that were falling just yet, and Buffy didn't seem to mind, both releasing after a few long moments.
Dawn moved to the foot of the bed and sat down next to her sister's leg while Joyce continued to stroke Buffy's hair. "How do you feel?" Dawn asked quietly, since Joyce was still collecting herself.
"Been better," Buffy let out a deep breath and let her eyes shut for a few minutes.
"Buffy, honey…" Joyce started, but was interrupted by her daughter's quiet plea.
"Seriously, I might be perfect if they didn't insist on this bed pan." Buffy shifted uncomfortably in the bed and laughed a little. "How are you guys?"
"Sweetheart," Joyce could see the nervousness that had settled into Buffy's system alongside the pain. "You don't have to do this."
"Do what?" the Slayer's voice cracked. "Lay here and wait to…"
"Be strong all the time," the mother cut her off, not wanting to hear the personal admission.
Buffy shut her eyes again, "But I'm the Slayer. I'm s'posed to be strong…" her voice trailed off as tears well in her eyes. Her gaze flicked from her sister to her mother, "Why did I even go?" she sounded like a little girl searching for an answer that nobody had. "I…I'm sorry…I'm so sorry…" the heaves her body made from her sobs caused her to wince, but she couldn't stop them, and Joyce pulled her into another hug. "I shouldn't've gone out tonight," Buffy cried into her mother's hair as she tried to sooth her.
"No should haves. And no apologies," Joyce whispered to her, rocking her slightly like she did when she was a child, listening as Dawn's tears were renewed.
"I want to watch my children grow up," Buffy continued to cry. "I don't want to die."
Joyce couldn't think of anything to say so she just held her. She remembered the countless times through the years that she told Buffy to stop being the Slayer. Countless fights and disagreements, even more so since she had children, that had resulted in Buffy storming out, leaving Joyce to wonder if that would be the last time. Joyce remembered Buffy telling her something that she refused to believe as fact: that she was born to be the Slayer. Buffy had also said something that she now doubted she even believed herself until now; that she would die being the Slayer. Because of the Slayer.
"They'll always love you, Honey. They'll know who you are…you'll mean everything to them." Joyce whispered as she settled Buffy back into the pillows.
"But I won't be there," it was barely audible it was stated so soundlessly.
"You'll be there forever. None of us will let that change." The tears were stinging Buffy's eyes, making them hard to keep open, but she soon felt Dawn's fingers lightly brushing them away.
"It's going to be okay, Buffy," she insisted.
"Yeah," Dawn agreed after a moment. "We're Summers', remember?" she repeated what Buffy had told her when their mother had been in the hospital, "We're strong. We pull through."
"What if I can't anymore?" Buffy asked not to anyone, but to everybody at the same time.
"Then we'll do it for you," Dawn told her firmly, but sadly.
Buffy nodded a little and released a sigh followed by a tight lipped grin. "No matter how many times this happens I'm never going to be ready for it."
Joyce just continued to stroke her hair, ignoring the quiet comment. "Stop worrying, Honey. For once in your life listen to me and stop worrying."
"But I…" Buffy made a move to protest, settling in her mind that s long as she refused to let her body completely give into the inevitable, the longer she would stay alive. Wishing that the longer she was alive to withstand the pain, the greater the chances that she would recover would be.
"Shhhh," her mother quieted her. She knew what Buffy was doing – she knew her little girl. It seemed that every time she was at a physical disadvantage the Slayer mentality would kick in. The fight till the last breath and with everything you have. Joyce loved that about her daughter – her tenacity, her refusal to be weak and beaten, but she hated to see her in pain. She hated that she was one of the causes of it, indirect as it may be.
Buffy was not refusing to let go for her own personal sake. Buffy was refusing to let go for her family. Her family who still needed her and wasn't ready to be without her. Yes, for her and Dawn, and certainly for Willow and Giles, but mostly for Blythe and Gray and Xander. Her family that she had made for herself in spite of her destiny and had promised forever to. Her family who loved her and who she loved back with everything that she was. Her family who loved her enough to prepare to do the unthinkable – to let her go.
Joyce leaned down and pressed a lingering kiss to Buffy's forehead, hearing the constant hiss of the air flowing into her nose as she did so. "I'm going to go get Xander," she said quietly against Buffy's forehead and received a nod. She had thrown up the white flag in her internal battle of staying and watching Buffy die or leaving to preserve the image of her baby as it was: bright and so full of life. She wanted the later – her baby. She pushed herself away hoping that Buffy didn't notice that she couldn't meet her eyes. But Buffy did.
She watched her mother and felt the bed shift as Dawn stood up after casting her a quick glance. "Mommy…" Buffy whispered not wanting to be alone – not now. And Joyce's heart broke again – one more time when she didn't think that it could. "I love you…"
Her voice cracked under her reply, "You too Pumpkin. I love you too."
"Dawn." Buffy turned her gaze to her sister and lifted a contradictory weak, slightly trembling hand. Her sister stopped and walked back to the bed grasping the hand and all but collapsing onto her big sister.
"I love you, Buff…"
She had never felt so weak. Had never tried so hard to smile. "I know," Buffy quipped while running her fingers through Dawn's long hair. "I'm the best big sister in the world."
Dawn pulled back with a watery smile despite herself. "You are."
Buffy's chin shook as dawn backed out of her grasp. "I want Xander now," her eyes cut back to her Mom.
Joyce nodded and took Dawn's hand, leading her out of the room. Nobody said goodbye…no more 'I love you's', no more hugs and kisses to buy more time – pretend it would change anything. They just left to get Xander as Buffy had requested. It was all they had left in them anyway.
They were numb when they reached the waiting room. Scared when they saw the wet, dazed, and red eyes of Xander clinging to his children. Hollow when he handed Blythe and Gray over to them. Cold and empty as they watched Xander shuffle back down the hall, head hung and eyes downcast.
"Let's go Munchkins," Joyce whispered into Gray's hair as she held him against her. She didn't look back – couldn't look back – as she followed Dawn out of the automatic doors and back to her car with her grandchildren.
Xander took a deep breath and forced out a grin before turning into Buffy's room again, this time not pausing to study her diminishing appearance. "The doctors," he started immediately and Buffy slowly opened her eyes to see him. "They say…"he lost his voice momentarily, "They say you're gonna be just fine." Xander fought to keep his smile from faltering.
Buffy extended her hand to him: the one who had been by her side since the beginning, her best friend when she didn't deserve it, the man who had made good on his vow to never leave her; and he came to her side. "Liar," she teased quietly, gently tugging him to sit beside her. "You should stick to the truth, your eyes always give you away."
Xander looked down shyly before meeting Buffy's greenish-hazel eyes. He only chose to chuckle instead of voicing any denial at her statement. He knew that it wouldn't make a bit of difference, she already knew anyway. He just gripped her hand tighter, for once holding on stronger than the Slayer, and leant down to kiss her – tasting Buffy's now dry lips with his own and lingering a long moment. When he pulled back, only a fraction on an inch, he kept his eyes closed.
"Do you know that I love you?" Buffy spoke, still so close that each word felt like a tiny fluttering kiss. Xander nodded against her with a deep sigh. "Do you know how much I owe you?"
"Nothing," Xander disagreed.
"Everything," Buffy said hoarsely. She brought her hand to his face and traced his eyebrow, down his cheek to the corner of his mouth with soft fingertips before Xander caught her wrist and brought her hand to his lips kissing them. Buffy's voice was a combination of her physical condition combined with an upsurge of emption, "You gave me the life I always wanted…" she looked him straight in the eyes. "Than…"
"Shhhh," Xander interrupted. "We did that for each other."
Buffy just nodded…just gave in, and it made Xander wanted to cry.
"Buffy," he whispered reverently, running his fingers through her hair as it rested on the white pillow. He was preparing to do what he least wanted to as he studied her face. The deceptionally pale and sunken face of the woman that he had loved since before he could remember. "Does it hurt?"
Buffy's wet eyes darted all over his face; from his hairline to his chin and back several times before answering almost truthfully. "Not so much anymore…" she hadn't even interpreted that completely herself so she left the statement at that.
Xander nodded and licked his lips before kissing her briefly again. "If it does…"
"Xander," Buffy shut her eyes against the stinging tears sensing what she was about to say and willing it not to happen, but he pressed on regardless.
"If it does…God, Buffy I love you so much…but, if it hurts too much," Xander sucked in a breath and leant up to kiss her forehead, "You can let go."
Her eyes flashed to catch his, the pain physical and emotional flooding out.
"I love you too much to want you to suffer for me, so if it hurts you too much you can let go…I won't be mad."
Her eyes shut and her body relaxed and she nodded. Buffy nodded to her husband unaware of his sad eyes. The Slayer nodded to surrender. Xander bowed his head and held her hand, able to feel the slight tremble even as she rested.
"I'm so sorry I didn't listen, Xander," Buffy forced her tired eyes open to see him, "So sorry I went."
He bit his bottom lip and his voice quivered, "Me too, Hon. I'm sorry, too."
"Why?" Her thumb swiped at the tears on the right side of his face.
"Cuz…" he shook his head, "There's nothing I can do…"
"Tell my babies that I love them always." Buffy breathed out, still caressing the side of his face as he nodded.
"Promise to remember something better than this."
"I'll remember everything."
Buffy tilted his head up to meet hers and didn't speak until Xander opened his eyes to lock onto hers. "That's everything I want."
Xander nodded again, shakily and slowly while taking deep breaths. It was so cold…she was so cold – her hand in his freezing where it once was searing heat. "Are you cold Baby?" He husked out while standing up slowly from the bed.
"A little," Buffy sighed as he headed to the closet and pulled open the door.
"There're no extra blankets," he commented solemnly turning to face her, but she had her eyes closed. "I'm going to go get one from the desk," he told her as he re-approached the bed and pressed a light kiss to Buffy's forehead. Xander frowned internally at the clammy skin under his lips and the rattled sound of the breaths she was taking, but the fact that her eyes, suddenly clear and focused, opened and locked with his deterred him.
"Thank you," Buffy told him, pulling Xander down for another kiss, savoring his lips.
"I'll be right back," he offered a tight grin and turned and walked out of the door towards the nurses' station.
The phone was ringing. Deafening and shrill in my ear as my hand gripped the cold plastic.
I had taken eight steps outside of Buffy's room. I can still hear each and every one. The stomp of my shoes, unnaturally loud, etched into my mind…echoing through my conscious.
Eight steps before I heard a high pitched hum behind me. Eight steps before a flood of hospital staff surrounded me, passed me, and rushed into my wife's room.
She needed a blanket.
She was cold.
I only turned to see Dr. Moore walking towards me – shaking his head.
My knees gave out under me and tears wouldn't even come. My body just shut down in the middle of the bright hall. I was sitting on the floor for a moment…for a hundred. I don't know. It doesn't really matter anymore.
"Daddy?" My son answered the phone at the Summers' house. It was 3:43 in the morning so it had to be me – they had to be waiting for my call. Good or bad, of course they were waiting.
My voice was all but gone. "Hey Champ." I swallowed, "What are you still doing up?"
I can hear Joyce and Dawn in the background, fidgeting.
"Aunt Dawn's watching 'Beauty and the Beast' with me. She said its Mommy's favorite."
Buffy and I had watched that movie about a million times together. She loved it. And I'm crying again, trying to mask my sobs through the phone. "You should be in bed…"
"Daddy?" My boy interrupted.
"Yeah Kiddo?" I can't breathe again because I know what's next. I can feel it.
"Is Mommy sleeping now?"
The question was so innocent and pure. The answer the exact opposite in its devastation. "Yeah Gray…Mommy's sleeping."